I’m lucky, I have always been exposed to lots of music from different cultures. Simplified, my parents were both blues and folk loving hippies who moved to rural Wales in the early 1970’s and when pop and rock music became just too overwhelmingly commercial for them, eventually cast aside The Incredible String Band and looked to other nations’ music for their kicks; reggae and then African stuff in particular. Over time our little farmhouse in West Wales reverberated to the rhythms and sounds of Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and, always, Jamaica. Growing up I just assumed this was the way everyone lived and what everyone listened to. By the time I was thirteen I could (and still can) tell the difference between music from, for example, Mali or Senegal*. We also went to various festivals where you could hear this music for yourself, people weren’t quite labelling it as ‘World Music’ yet and so I was exposed to an unimaginable wealth of music from all around the world. I had no real time for Latin music though, still don’t as a rule, but I just love African music in all it’s many, many forms and flavours**.
Of course, just like every teen there has ever been and will ever be, I rebelled and showed my individuality by loving exactly what everyone else my age loved (all the latest singles as well as just worshipping Queen) by the time I was fourteen. And just like every worthwhile ex-teen, once such hormonal silliness abated, I realized there might be something in all that and I’ve always kept my ears open to new sounds from different places and have had an indecent amount of fun exploring it all again, but although I own a fair few CD’s I don’t actually own much African music on vinyl, maybe 9 – 10 LPs at most.
Fela Kuti was a man maybe too large for this world and certainly too large for Nigeria in the 1970’s. I won’t give you the full biography here as there are several excellent ones out there^ but in short, he was a London-educated, Handel-loving, polygamist with seemingly limitless appetites for life, sex and cussed opposition to every regime he was ever exposed to. It’s not an original thought of mine but what he was doing musically and politically by the late 1970’s was way more extreme, confrontational and anarchic than anything coming out of London or New York neatly packaged with a circled A. Fela’s commune, named the Kalakuta Republic, was burned to the ground and he was almost beaten to death after witnessing soldiers defenestrate his aged mother – but that and Fela’s revenge is a story for another record… He was supposed to have simply been the best live performer around, Paul McCartney was said to have wept when he saw him play in Lagos at his legendary club the Shrine.
Fela’s music and the attendant scene around it came to be known a little later as Afrobeat and it is characterised by long, long songs which build and build, with the vocals only kicking in halfway through, or later. He once claimed to be making classical music for Africa and however seriously you take that, there are valid comparisons there with vestigial movements, recurring themes and motifs prominent throughout his big tunes. Big bands are also a common denominator, tons of brass, guitars played solely for rhythm and just killer drums and percussion. Fela himself played saxophone and keyboards brilliantly, as well as singing (in Pidgin Nigerian English and occasionally Yoruba). I particularly like the keyboard sound he used, I’m no keyboard geek but I’d describe it as electric piano; think Doors ‘Riders on the Storm’.
Open & Close credited to Fela Ransome Kuti & The Africa ’70 , dates from 1971 and is simply the bomb! I own a 1975 French reissue with a split and damaged cover which I bought in 1993 after playing a copy that belonged to one of my father’s friends almost to death. How can I describe the sheer joy and life-affirming nature of this LP? no idea. It’s a great place to start listening to Fela Kuti, as I think it is the most Western of any of his records. Heavily, heavily influenced by James Brown – both Africa ’70 and the JBs apparently having a great mutual respect for each other. ‘Open & Close’ blasts the roof off the party within it’s opening seconds, the rhythm just galloping, the horns blaring just-so and after around 7 and a half minutes of bliss you get the call and response vocals, instructing you how to dance the Open & Close and then it just cranks up another notch to a climax. I know I over-use the word genius, but this is genius. There can be no excuse for failing to strut your stuff to this tune.
The more sedate ‘Swegbe and Pako’ follows, split into two by the tyranny of vinyl (okay so the thrice-accursed silver disc is a more practical format here, damnit!), featuring far more groovy keyboards and brass than is good for a man to take in during a single 24-hour period and the 9-minute thrillingly-titled ‘Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo’ closes the LP out with a far more jazzy take on the sound of the whole LP, Fela using the call and response vocals again to sing a folk song. The sheer exhilarating energy and life in this LP does not let up for a second.
If you haven’t dabbled yet, I’d recommend this LP unreservedly, if you fancy a single track as a taster go for the title track. Trust me, I’m an enthusiast!
*all Malian music sounds like water to me.
**I get a bit self-conscious writing about myself, if anyone wants to hear more about this then let me know and I may oblige.
^I’d recommend Michael Veal’s ‘Fela: The Life & Times of an African Musical Icon’.